North Fork Outdoors: Dogs and horses make for unique pairing

12/08/2011 10:00 PM |

There are certain sports that pair naturally in the lives of outdoor persons. Fishing and hunting come immediately to mind, but even within the disciplines, there are pairings. Grouse hunters generally love to fish for trout (sometimes salmon). Pheasant hunters often tend to be freshwater bass anglers. If you are a shotgunner you play clay target games (trap, skeet or sporting clays), and you hunt upland game or wildfowl; if you do rifles, handguns, or archery, you hunt big game. But for us in recent years the most interesting pairing includes field competition with dogs coupled with horseback riding.

Traditional field competition with upland dogs began, according to historians, with quail trials on southern plantations around the time of the Civil War (Warning: try to avoid the subject of “The War of Northern Aggression” in the presence of any current plantation owners!).

The early dogs were setters, then pointers, and the open areas had to be covered on horseback between covey finds. In the summer, the first dog trainers took their dogs up north to the prairies where they could work on the native birds, too, i.e.. sharptailed grouse, sage grouse, prairie chicken, and the newly introduced pheasants that spread into the heartland by the 1930s and 1940s.

Again, they traveled the vast open areas on horseback. Even if you had slower working dogs, you could see them so much better from the vantage point of a saddle. Naturally, if you were going to fire a gun over the dogs’ points, you had to dismount, flush the birds and, finally, release the dogs to continue the hunt only after you were properly mounted. In other words, the whole exercise demanded well-trained dogs that were “steady to wing and shot” with appropriate manners. But the horses were vital for judging, observing, following and training.

The first time I ever climbed up on a horse in the early 1960s, I rode with a companion around the perimeter of a central Illinois farm, and I was amazed at how the farm spread out before me, adjacent fields and edges reaching to the horizon. That sense of space is what continues to fascinate me whenever I judge dogs, follow dogs or scout them while sitting in a saddle. Interestingly enough, it’s also natural for folks who grow up with horses to pick up the field trial game, because it seems so natural in certain areas to look over the landscape while riding along and watch a wide ranging pointing dog roll out, then suddenly appear as a frozen statue along some distant edge.

We really began to get serious about horses less than a decade ago. Until then, I rode rental or borrowed horses and literally “rode by the seat of my pants,” bad saddle behavior and all, and survived. Then, with our best dog really blossoming when handled from a horse, Janet made the move to horse ownership and learned (and taught me) to ride properly. She’s done well handling all our Brittanys since — and handling horses, too. But, oh what a difference between horses and dogs!

You realize almost immediately how different prey animals (equines) are from predators (dogs), and horses are a lot bigger. The clumsy dog that steps on your feet on a lead may simply trip you, but the horse that steps on your foot will force you to walk with a cane for a while. Even the calmest and most docile trail horses and walking horses see the occasional “dragon” that lurks out there — the strange rock pile, the blue watering tank, the kid on a four-wheeler coming up from behind, then take off.

Holding on in the saddle is one thing, getting back in control another. If you ride enough horses long enough, you’ll have “experiences”: saddles that slip off, horses that stumble or unexpectedly “buck” when stressed, etc. There are good reasons why riders wear helmets and appropriate gear.

Old sayings suddenly have new meaning in the outdoors. For instance, provided you’re unhurt after a fall, “getting back on the horse” is important for you and the horse. One skipper always had an expression he used when bottomfish like tautog got their heads down and tried to dive into rubble and wrecks. “Hold ‘er, Elmer, she’s headed ‘fer’ the barn!” I learned the true meaning of that phrase when we’d get off an unsecured horse in the field for whatever reason, then find the animal galloping back to the trial area, leaving us to walk “home”. Horses have an uncanny knack for knowing where their haybales and trailer are located.

However, during a recent trial while trying to get back to a staging area miles away from the spot where we’d picked up our dog, all alone and with only vague instructions about fencelines, I slackened the reins and settled back. We got “home” in no time at all!

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